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This article is part of our new collaboration with The Ferret. Each edition will see a different issue in Scotland tackled, and this time we're looking at housing. See our news story here, an explainer here, the key data in graphs here, and sign up for the  free monthly newsletter here.

WHEN we arrive at Megan’s small two-bed house in Cumbernauld she’s already peering out of the window and she waves. Until recently she wouldn’t have done that. She owed about £1800 in rent arrears and, living in fear she would be evicted, kept the curtains shut tight.

“You end up scared to even open the door,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone to know I was in the house. It sounds crazy but you feel unsafe with that hanging over you. You wake up in the morning and just worry about money constantly. And meanwhile the debt rises and the anxiety spirals.”

I’m here with Sanctuary Scotland’s housing and community connector Laura McMillan to see what difference a holistic approach to rent arrears can make. Because in the midst of what many consider a Scotland-wide housing emergency and cost of living crisis, combined with council, social care and health cuts, Megan (who is not using her real name) is far from alone.

A Ferret investigation into housing tribunal decisions found that more than 1300 eviction orders were granted by the Scottish housing tribunal during the Scottish Government eviction moratorium between October 2022 and March 2024. The majority of these evictions were due to rent arrears, most at a level which meant they could still be enforced by landlords despite the so-called ban.

Some were not much higher than Megan’s. But others had spiralled over months and years to £5000 or £6000. Some complex and long-running cases even reached £20,000 or more.

These cases are only the “tip of the iceberg” of evictions, according to tenants’ union Living Rent. The majority never reach this stage with renters leaving when served a notice to quit by their landlord without a fight.

The National: Living Rent members protest in EdinburghLiving Rent members protest in Edinburgh (Image: PA)

But our deep dive into the decisions found local authorities, struggling for both resources and housing, told tenants to stay put until they were evicted – some had been on the housing lists for a decade or more. Homeless charities told The Ferret that those who were evicted often found themselves in temporary homeless accommodation, where statistically they will likely stay for months or years.

Housing emergencies across Scotland

The systemic failure of Scotland’s housing system is now well-known. Five local authorities – first Argyll and Bute last June, then Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fife and most recently West Dunbartonshire – have announced housing emergencies. Councils across Scotland have been accused of breaking housing law “on an industrial scale” by experts and the situation has been labelled by some as a “car crash”.

There are more ongoing homelessness cases in Scotland now than at any point on record, with 30,129 live applications by September 2023. Almost 10,000 children are in temporary accommodation, where in Edinburgh people are spending an average of 471 days.

Yet, dig below the surface and you find those who are determined that this situation is too important to give up on and who are working on solutions that if combined and scaled up, they claim, would have an impact.

One of those is a programme by Sanctuary Scotland, one of the country’s biggest housing associations with almost 12,000 social homes across Scotland, including in Cumbernauld, where Megan’s home is.

Laura McMillan is Megan’s “community connector”, one of four across Sanctuary’s estate charged with helping to address all the issues facing tenants rather than just chasing the rent. It’s a small-scale intervention and it doesn’t prevent every eviction – there were 17 last year from Sanctuary properties in Scotland.

But it has supported a further 387 households deemed to be at risk of losing their tenancy, often due to multiple factors, including rent arrears. They’ve helped them stay in their homes and avoid eviction.

Struggling to cope with mental and physical health issues, looking at her rent arrears letters terrified Megan. She wanted to hide away rather than confront them. So she didn’t answer the door.

Suspecting she was no longer living there, Sanctuary was planning to serve a notice of abandonment. But first, they wanted to deploy one last strategy.

“I put my card through her door,” explains McMillan. Her card is cheery, upbeat – ”Sorry we missed you,” it says, with a number to text back and no mention of arrears.

It worked and Megan texted. She came round and they chatted for an hour “about her daughter and the fact that I come from just along the road”, remembers McMillan. “It’s not about the rent arrears, it’s about me getting to know people.”

She arranged for Megan to see a welfare officer who got her adult disability payment in place and backdated, helped her to apply for grants for the house and listened to what she needed. She also helped the housing association make sense of Megan’s behaviour – her anxiety, depression and fears following an illegal eviction by a private landlord a decade previously. Back then she was thrown out of the flat with her 13-year-old daughter and lost all her belongings and she worries that could happen again.

'A symptom of another problem'

Anthony Morrow, a community manager at Sanctuary Scotland – who had the idea for the project five years ago – says anxiety of this kind is typical: “I always say rent arrears are a symptom of another problem. No-one wakes up and decides they’re not going to pay rent any more.

“It’s about recognising tenants that are struggling, helping them to be happy and healthy. Then the rent follows.”

At first, the service was a crisis intervention. But he and his team found that beginning to work with someone at this stage was often too late to stop eviction proceedings. Now, while they “will never close the door on anyone”, they aim to start early, visiting people when arrears first start to build up to see if they need any support.

Cumbernauld was designated as one of Scotland’s new towns in 1955. Dubbed “the town of tomorrow”, it was part of a plan to move 550,000 people out of over-crowded housing in Glasgow into purpose-built family flats. Laura McMillan’s grandparents were one of those families.

The National: Cumbernauld

But 70 years later, though the housing stock is gradually being replaced, much of what remains is rundown, and the lack of investment and impact of austerity is visible. “Some people have been through trauma and it results in them not being able to cope,” says McMillan. “You see behaviours like hoarding and self-neglect. And social care often doesn’t have the resources to intervene now – it’s hard to get the help people need.”

We turn into Milllcroft – a rundown area which Megan was evicted from a decade ago. There’s a compulsory purchase order on these flats. The council is buying them and has “ambitious regeneration plans”, so change is hopefully coming. But today many of the windows on the crumbling buy-to-let flats owned by absent landlords are boarded up, there’s litter, fly-tipped furniture and an abandoned trolley. It’s hard, McMillan says, for those living there not to feel abandoned.

Next stop is the oldest part of Cumbernauld known as “the village”, where McMillan tells me about a former tenant who was living in a flat blooming with mould and where the bushes grew up against the window, blocking the light. He was depressed, drinking and his mental health was suffering.

“When I first got involved with him he hadn’t left the house for six months,” says McMillan. “He hadn’t been to the doctor or taking his medication. No-one checked up on him. I got him moved to a new build. He had a wee garden, planted some flowers, got a table and chairs for it and he’d sit there and wave to you. He was so delighted.”

She has also helped women fleeing domestic abuse, and another who was assaulted at work. “It can be emotionally draining,” she admits. But she can see it’s making a difference.

The social housing challenge

Sanctuary is one of 11 housing associations who benefited from a £1.5 million Scottish Government fund which so far has supported 2764 people to sustain their tenancies.

But the problem for many is not staying in social housing – it’s getting into it in the first place.

There are nearly 250,000 people – roughly five per cent of the population –- on a waiting list for a social home in Scotland, according to Carolyn Lochhead, Scottish Housing Federation director of external affairs. So while there is “significant work going on throughout the social housing sector to sustain tenancies”, there are simply not enough homes to accommodate everyone.

Part of the reason is historic – the right-to-buy policy which ran from 1979 until 2016 saw Scotland lose nearly 500,000 social homes. But many argue there has been a lack of investment since. A £190m cut to the affordable housing budget announced by then-first minister Humza Yousaf in March sparked fury. There are now calls for John Swinney, his replacement, to reverse it.

The National: John Swinney has appointed his cabinet and ministerial team (Andrew Milligan/PA)

“Successive cuts by the Scottish Government to the affordable housing supply programme have been a hammer-blow for tackling poverty and homelessness across Scotland,” Lochhead says.

Cuts combined with rising construction costs have created the perfect storm in terms of the continuing shortages. The number of builds started by housing associations in 2023 was at the lowest level since 1988. With 92,381 homes still to be built in order to meet the Scottish Government target of 110,000 by 2032, it looks likely it won’t be reached.

How retrofitting could help

Edinburgh architect Malcolm Fraser claims there’s a way around this. Instead of focusing on new builds, we should be looking to retrofit instead of rebuild, he says, taking empty property across Scotland and putting in the work to make it possible to repurpose them as homes.

“There’s so much potential to create the homes people want to live in,” he says. “I had a really great tour around Perth where the empty homes officer is doing just that and getting homes up and running for £80,000.”

He is part of a campaign to see Glasgow’s Wyndford flats, in the north-west of the city, refurbished instead of demolished.

The National: GV of 171 Wyndford Road, Maryhill. 171 is one of four tower blocks in The Wyndford that are earmarked for demolition...Photograph by Colin Mearns.22 September 2022.For The Herald, see story by Deborah Anderson.

But there are currently issues in making that a reality, with fewer grants available for often tricky retrofits than those for rebuilds. So while social housing remains in such short supply, many who may once have been eligible for social housing are forced into the private rental sector.

The private rental trap

Barbara Welsh, a 45-year-old university administrator, is one of them. Earlier this year she received a notice to quit her flat, delivered by sheriff officers after her landlord decided to sell her flat. It was dated for April 1, the day the eviction ban was lifted.

She had been living in her two-bed flat for 16 years and it was home. The rent had gone up to £895 in August 2022 so when another rent increase was suggested she challenged it. The eviction notice followed soon after.

“I didn’t see any point in fighting it,” she says. “I didn’t see that I could win this one. I couldn’t take the extra stress and anxiety.”

The local housing associations didn’t assess her as a priority. And just one mid-market rental property came up locally and was flooded with applications. Nearby private rentals were being advertised around her for up to £1700 a month. In the end she found a flat in nearby Anniesland – only 2.4 miles away but it still felt “like uprooting my life”.

“It’s changed the way I feel about things,” she says. “It’s the lack of security. Am I still going to be able to live here in one year? In 10 years? Is the same thing going to happen again?”

The Ferret’s investigation found many facing “no-fault evictions” like Barbara were waiting for social housing, and like her, did not have enough points to rise to the top of queues. There were single mothers, juggling part-time work with caring for both children and elderly relatives, facing no-fault evictions after years on the housing lists and older people whose names had never come up now looking for care homes.

According to Tony Cain, housing veteran and currently policy manager of the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers, councils could start buying homes with sitting tenants from landlords as they sell up. “Every home adds to our stock,” he says.

But there’s something fundamental he thinks we must do in terms of the private rental sector. “We need to radically reassess the power imbalance between tenants and landlords,” he explains. “In many ways it’s mediaeval. You see that imbalance in the housing tribunals and you see it in evictions.”

Living Rent claims there are definitive grounds for this. In a survey of 700 private rental tenants they released last month, 62% said they were worried they would be evicted following the so-called ban. Almost two in 10 had been evicted before.

The survey suggested that almost a third of landlords had given a false reason for evicting them, but in almost all cases tenants had not taken the case to the housing tribunal. Almost half had their rent increased since January 2023.

Strengthening tenants' rights

Landlord associations meanwhile have argued that measures aimed at strengthening tenants’ rights are having a detrimental effect not only on landlords themselves, but on the whole sector, reducing the number of homes to rent as landlords were forced to sell up.

Last year, the Scottish Association of Landlords (SAL), Scottish Land and Estates and Propertymark took legal action against the Scottish Government, claiming the law was disproportionate and unfair. But they lost the case.

John Blackwood, chief executive of SAL, said: “Landlords are seeing rising mortgage interest charges as well as increasing bills for upgrades or repairs which often results in rents not covering the costs.

“The sector has long seen the consequences of a lack of appropriate social housing in Scotland. We need a much more effective plan to make sure that people are secure in a home that is suitable for their needs and is affordable for all parties.”

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Gordon MacRae (above), assistant director of Shelter Scotland, admits there is evidence that some landlords are leaving the sector. “But we’re also seeing a similar trend in England,” he adds, “so it’s not clear that it’s the legislation that’s having that impact. There is still considerable value in being a landlord in Scotland.”

He agrees that while longer term the solution has to be more social housing, there is much we can do to increase stock and improve renters’ rights: “What we need is someone in government who is focused on making this happen and has the creativity, leadership and political will to drive actual change.”

Meanwhile, in Cumbernauld, staff at Sanctuary Scotland’s Community Connectors programme won’t change things on their own. This work can’t address the lack of housing, or the structural reasons for that.

But it can address the issues facing people like Megan, whose arrears are now down to £600 with an agreement that her benefits will cover a further £30 a month.

“At least,” she says, “there’s no risk of me losing the house over this anymore. There’s a steady plan.”

And that’s a start.